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Humanae Vitae: The Church’s own “1968 moment” — Part One

Today, 50 years ago, the encyclical Humanae Vitae was released. In a two-part exclusive series, Fr Anthony Egan, a Jesuit moral theologian and ethicist at The Jesuit Institute South Africa, makes a socio-historical reading of one of the most contentious of the Church's documents in the modern period. In this first part, he introduces the factors that led to the production of the document and why its impact was so profound on the society and the Church of the time. In the second part, he explains why this document continues to be a source of ongoing division for the Catholic Church.

Promulgated fifty years ago, the encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV) of Pope Paul VI on artificial birth control has proved to be one of the most divisive teachings in the history of modern Catholicism. Rejected with as much virulence by many in the Church as it was accepted and seen as a touchstone of orthodoxy by others. It has been debated ever since with equal intensity. Its most ardent supporters claim its infallibility while detractors reject it, the latter missing perhaps its excellent observations on the importance of marital love and fidelity. What few seem to notice is the time at which it was produced – the dramatic political, social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s that culminated in the great year of protest, 1968.

I shall not discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the encyclical directly. Its fans and detractors have already written exhaustively on it, depleting whole forests in the process. Rather, in this article, having outlined the origins of HV and noted the debates around it, I shall suggest that it is best understood as an official Catholic response to the 1960s. The reaction to it in the Church also mirrors the response to 1968 as a whole in global society.

From the Council to the Commission…

It is widely held that the majority of bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) welcomed the decision not to debate artificial birth control and to refer the matter to a Papal Commission. The Council was already heavily burdened with theological and pastoral matters. When the Commission was convened it moreover reflected the participatory and consultative model of the Council: bishops, priests and theologians in dialogue with doctors, medical scientists, sociologists and even married couples, the latter speaking from their experience of the Church’s rejection of artificial birth control on family life and child-bearing.

This dialogue, between medical science and lived experience on one hand and moral theology on the other, soon had an impact on the Commission. Many theologians began to rethink their assumptions in the light of this new evidence, possibly influenced by Pope Pius XII’s 1950s teachings on medical ethics which had stressed the importance of taking science seriously. Some theologians came to the conclusion that the natural law theory on which the prohibition was based (evident in the 1930 papal encyclical Casti Connubi) was too narrowly defined, too physicalist, to be helpful. Even members of the Commission against changing Church teaching realised that, in all honesty, the prohibition on artificial birth control could not be justified by natural law reasoning.

To this must be added the Council’s renewed commitment to personal conscience, formed and informed, that was central to the long tradition of Catholic moral theology, and the emphasis on the laity as full members of the Church with the duty to be actively engaged in the life of the Church and the world. The result of the process was a Commission Report supported by an overwhelming majority of its members that artificial birth control should be permitted to married couples as a means of regulating family size.

While the Commission was still deliberating word of imminent changes to Church teaching filtered out. Popular expectations started to rise. These expectations were dashed when HV was formally promulgated on 25 July 1968.

…to the Crisis

Contrary to everything in the Commission Report, HV reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception. While accepting natural family planning, it insisted on the inseparability of the ‘unitive’ from the ‘procreative’ (§12), arguing that artificial contraception actively separated sexual union from the possibility of procreation. This was incompatible with God’s natural law. The only exception allowed (§15) was therapeutic use to “cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result therefrom—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever”.

Reaction to HV was immediate and dramatic, with expressions of disappointment and even anger from many lay Catholics – some of whom left the Church. Many, arguably most, moral theologians were highly critical of the teaching, pointing out the problems of natural law that the Commission had surfaced. Bishops Conferences around the world went into damage limitation mode – many of them while affirming the right of the Pope to teach this, and its consistency with earlier tradition, reminding Catholics of the primacy of formed and informed conscience in making personal decisions.

What had happened between the Commission and 25 July?

Behind the scenes

After it had become clear that the Commission was proposing a reform of moral teaching, a small group of theologians and clergy had approached Paul VI directly to oppose the Commission’s Majority Report. This group included some of the Commission’s minority, who produced a Minority Report. Time Magazine's Roman and Vatican correspondent Robert Blair Kaiser, who’d observed Vatican II and the Commission, has reported that this group warned Paul VI that should he sign the Majority Report all central authority in the Church would collapse. Faced with what seemed to him the chaotic way in which Vatican II was being implemented around the world, Paul VI conceded to the minority. Given this, it is not surprising that the opening paragraphs of HV frame the encyclical in a reassertion of the pope’s magisterial authority to reject the finding of the Commission.

Meanwhile, according to historical research done by theologians Michael Barberi and Joseph Selling, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow set up his own commission to examine both the Majority and Minority reports. Drawing on his controversial 1960 book Love and Responsibility – criticised by many scholars for its unusual take on personalist philosophy and its reliance for its thinking on sexuality on a psychiatrist considered by many of her peers as eccentric – Wojtyla’s commission sketched out four key principles: inseparability of the unitive from the procreative; God’s will and design; lawful versus unlawful birth control; and negative moral consequences of artificial birth control. These elements, sometimes paraphrases of the Krakow Commission report, can be found in HV.

As we all know, Karol Wojtyla would become in 1978 Pope – and later Saint – John Paul II. His subsequent teachings on sex and sexuality, whether in encyclicals or in talks later developed into the Theology of the Body, are direct descendants of his book Love and Responsibility and Humanae Vitae.

The fallout

Paul VI, who received the brunt of the fury HV generated, was shaken by the experience. If it had been his intention to put the brakes on what he and many others saw as a ‘runaway church’ (to borrow the title of Peter Hebblethwaite’s later book), the brakes seemed to fail. Though he wrote a number of subsequent apostolic exhortations and letters, many of them very well-received, he never wrote another encyclical in his pontificate.

Faced with dissent, his successors over the next few decades resorted to authority rather than dialogue to deal with it: condemning books, silencing theologians, occasional excommunications. In many countries among laity acrimonious religious ‘culture wars’ erupted between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ which only intensified in the age of the internet, while within the clergy and religious HV became a litmus test for orthodoxy and an unspoken criterion for episcopal preferment.

This then is the story in brief of HV’s impact on the Catholic Church. But it leaves many questions unanswered. Above all why was there such a dramatic reaction to the Commission’s Majority Report? And why such a reaction against HV? My proposal is that we can only understand this against the broader socio-cultural background of the 1960s.

Images: Wikipedia remixed by Ricardo da Silva SJ

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.